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Are Mindfulness-Based Interventions the Solution to Learning Loss?

  • 5 Min Read

It’s hard to read a news article about education these days without getting inundated with the very real challenges schools are facing. Many of these problems come as the result of major shifts in our schools and education systems, in large part due to—although not solely because of—the global pandemic.

Four major challenges that are top of mind for North American schools are:

  1. Increases in student anxiety and stress: Youth mental health is important. A study of 615 middle-school-aged children found that “almost a third of kids and teens are worrying more” than they did before the pandemic.

  2. Gaps or decreases in social skills and emotional growth: This is true particularly for younger students. Nearly 40% of educators reported in one survey that the social skills and emotional maturity levels of their students are “much less advanced” when compared with those of their 2019 student cohorts.

  3. Academic learning loss: Across America, some students are making up for lost ground quickly, while others are falling further behind, particularly in math and reading.

  4. Teacher burnout and staff retention: COVID has exacerbated a teacher shortage problem years in the making, with 55% of teachers reporting that they will be leaving the profession earlier than planned.

These are major challenges that require macro-level changes to our education systems. But what can be done at local levels by schools and educators just trying to help their students be as successful as possible? One possible solution is mindfulness.

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Lighting the SEL Fuse for K-12 Learning Growth (Part 2)

Mindfulness is part of the puzzle for K-12 students.

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As described by University of Kentucky professor Ruth Baer in her 2003 paper “Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention,” mindfulness “involves intentionally bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment.” Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs), which focus on teaching and practicing mindfulness in the classroom, are popular in many schools, with associated benefits including:

  • increased positive mindset
  • increased coping skills and self-control
  • increased attention and focus
  • improvement in cognitive skills
  • improvement in social emotional learning skills

This all sounds pretty good, but can mindfulness actually reduce learning loss and student anxiety? In an effort to explore the relationship between mindfulness and school-related outcomes, the Boston Charter Research Collaborative (BCRC) completed two studies to measure the impact of mindfulness on social and academic learning. The first study surveyed 2,000 students in grades 5-8 on their mindfulness behaviors and found that an increase in mindfulness was associated with improved grades and better performance on standardized tests.

The second study, completed in 2019, was more controlled. In this study, a sixth-grade class in a Boston school was randomly divided into two groups. The first was selected to participate in an eight-week program studying mindfulness. The other was placed in coding classes for the same eight-week period. At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found a “modest but significant” increase in attention and a decrease in self-reported stress in the first group. MRI results of the students’ brains found a decreased response in the amygdala of students who had practiced mindfulness when exposed to stressful stimuli. Basically, students who have mindfulness experience are less likely to become anxious when put in difficult situations.

These small but significant studies demonstrated that yes, when mindfulness is explicitly taught and practiced in schools, students experience an increase in attention and academic achievement and a decrease in stress and anxiety. So, can schools use MBIs to solve some of their biggest challenges, namely, increased student stress, decreased social emotional well-being, and learning loss?

Yes and no. Although there is clearly power in mindfulness as a teaching strategy, there are also critics who caution against using it as a Band-Aid solution. In their 2017 piece “Mindful of Equity,” the Learning for Justice organization warns that by teaching students to cope with the stresses and anxieties of school, instead of examining the underlying reasons for these stressors, we risk ignoring important opportunities for change. Quoted in the article is Jey Ehrenhalt, a Teaching Tolerance staff member, who says, “What we don’t want to do is communicate to students that when your school system is failing you, the best way to cope is to sit still and be quiet and compliant.”

To extrapolate this to our current context: If we use mindfulness to improve academic and social learning gaps, particularly for our student populations who have been most impacted by the pandemic, do we risk ignoring what created these learning gaps and inequities in the first place?

The answer, argues the Learning for Justice team, is not to shy away from mindfulness, but instead to ensure we are using it purposefully and with strong teacher training in the subject. And that brings us to challenge 4 on our list: teacher burnout. There’s no question we are fast approaching a precipice in education. There are simply not enough teachers to staff our schools, and teacher burnout is largely being cited as the culprit—although of course, there are many other underlying causes, including compensation, workload, a national decrease in undergraduate degrees in teacher education programs and lack of in-classroom support. Recommending mindfulness programs for teachers as the singular solution is not realistic, but can these programs help at all?

According to Mindful Schools, an education organization that has worked with school teams for more than a decade to support the implementation of mindfulness in K-12 classrooms, yes. In the 2011-2012 school year, Mindful Schools partnered with the University of California, Davis, to complete a study of 937 children and 47 teachers across three Oakland, California, public schools. The study found:

  • a 90% decrease in stress following the program, as self-reported by teachers
  • a 77% increase in job satisfaction
  • an 82% increase in student-teacher connections

These are impressive numbers, especially if these types of programs also improve student social and academic learning.

So where does that leave us?

  1. Mindfulness—done in a purposeful, school-based way—can improve learning outcomes and the social emotional well-being of students and teachers.
  2. As a local solution, mindfulness can have small but significant impacts on the big challenges facing schools today.
  3. The risk is in viewing mindfulness as a stand-alone solution, in disregard of the need to make other necessary changes.

If you’re looking to get started, I highly recommend this BCRC study—specifically the list of practical guides and resources at the end. Stay tuned as well for our upcoming D2L Master Class on mindset and mindfulness, being released this summer!

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